The Drama of Shape - Andrew Lambirth

'Andrew Lambirth, author and art critic, whose latest book is Brian Rice Paintings 1952-2016'

Katherine Hamilton is a dedicated traveller, pursuing her wanderlust as far as New Mexico and Guatemala, but also traversing the British Isles in her search for places which move her. Yet however far she roams, it is always with renewed enthusiasm that she returns to her Suffolk studio, invigorated with the spirit of new places. She reminds me of GK Chesterton who famously maintained that the whole point of travel was to be able to come back home refreshed, to see the familiar with new eyes.

When she finds a subject she wants to paint, she makes pencil drawings of it with copious colour notes, seizing that particular moment of discovery in a sketchbook. She needs to impress the look of a landscape onto her mind, so that it may be recalled later in the studio with exactitude and with the emotions she felt when first regarding it. Inevitably, it is the parade of shapes she falls in love with – the roads, walls and trees that articulate a stretch of countryside.

The genesis of these paintings tends to be protracted: on average, a painting will take two years to reach resolution, and in the process may well change dimensions before it finds its final form. Hamilton paints on ready-primed unstretched canvas, deliberately cutting out a piece that is larger than the image she has in mind. She then draws out the composition in charcoal, and puts a wash of burnt sienna over the top. She builds the image slowly with much scraping back of paint with palette knife. As she excavates the image, it may become apparent that it needs to be larger or smaller than originally intended, but working on unmeasured pieces of canvas allows for this kind of development. The unstretched half-painted canvases lie about on the floor of the studio, acclimatising themselves. It is as if they have to become part of the fabric of the place before they can be of any value or meaning, and an aspect of this rite of passage is being walked upon by the artist as she moves around her working environment. Hamilton is refreshingly un-precious about her work.

She thins her oil paint with turps and aims for a lean look. Hers are not surfaces heavy with impasto, rather they appear scrubbed and chalky, possessing something of the fragility of pastel. The paintings are only stretched later, when the image is achieved.

The smaller works tend to be stuck down on board, or marouflaged, the larger canvases put on stretchers. Most of these paintings are worked on a substantial scale, but when Hamilton paints smaller she is no less effective. Look, for instance, at Valley, North Yorkshire. It is simply composed of trees, houses, roadway, light and weather, yet it radiates mystery.

Whether it’s the cut-out profile of the mountains in the Lofoten Islands, or the blocky, Cubist-faceted houses round the harbour at Staithes in North Yorkshire, Hamilton orchestrates flat patches of colour like battledress camouflage, playing out a complex exchange of surface pattern and depth. Occasionally her streamers of colour have a jagged awkwardness that is startlingly effective, as when she paints the Blythe estuary under a sunrise as hot as a volcano, or a cotton tree aflame in Autumn Desert. For my money, Hamilton is best at landscape, though the three interiors she painted of the deserted diamond mine towns of Namibia, all stairs and lines and shadows, offer as weird an ambience as you might find in the haunting images of Edward Hopper. Again, it is the drama of shape which attracted her to the subject.

The most impressive painting in this body of new work is Autumn Marsh. The crispness of design in Hamilton’s best pictures, and sometimes the pale but lambent colour, unexpectedly recall the intensely English vision of Eric Ravilious. In Autumn Marsh, Hamilton has achieved a pellucid panorama of the North Suffolk landscape as seen from the bell tower of St Michael’s Church in Beccles. Two Yorkshire winter paintings employ tracks in the snow to help delineate the terrain: Winter Dale (note the poignant gravestones) and Winter Landscape, with its circumscribing river and building blocks of farm sheds. Another Yorkshire subject focuses on a waterfall as it spills over a great bowl of rock and vegetation, eloquently foregrounded by the bare branches of a tree.

Katherine Hamilton is well aware of the central importance of being open to what her painting might want to say, and that this will only be discovered slowly, through the process of making. Her chief aim is to simplify and distil her imagery, and she achieves this through a dialogue between description and abstraction. These luminous new paintings are some of the finest she has made.